By Brandon Harris | The Playlist January 19, 2012 at 5:28PM
Serious dance filmmaking is under going something of a renaissance. While Wim Wenders’ "Pina" still kicks about arthouses, doc auteur Frederick Wiseman returns with one of his patented and lengthy direct cinema discourses on the civic, social or business institution of his choice. That it mostly involves naked ladies (the reason you probably can’t find its trailer anymore on YouTube) is truly beside the point for his biggest fans, but for many, it remains a sticking point.
With "Crazy Horse," his thirty-ninth feature, Wiseman once again zeroes in on a large scale dance oriented performing arts endeavor, as he did a few years back with "La Danse," although this profile of Paris’ legendary Crazy Horse cabaret reveals a place that is in some ways a world apart from the Paris Opera Ballet across town. For some the distinctions between the two, despite their obvious companionship, will fall on deaf ears.
Undeniably spry just a few weeks into his eighty-second year on Earth, Wiseman finds a cabaret where the idealism of high art and economic realities of smut meet elegantly and without too much conflict, and the film is as sensual and deft in its exploration of the mechanical workings of a human organization as any of the acclaimed director’s most cherished works. He casts a critical but never ironic eye on the inner-workings of the club, the pretentions of its managers and the ambitions of its young performers, but as always for Wiseman, it’s the whole place that is in the foreground, instead of the individual narratives of some of the people that inhabit the community which gives Crazy Horse life.
If you listen closely enough, one can already hear the ideologically inclined doc purists (you know you’re out there) howling out in the margins about how during this time of persistently high unemployment and class inequality, of war and the end of truth, Fred Wiseman, that most reliable and taciturn of the great mid century verite pioneers, is out somewhere shooting pretty ladies. For the second time in his last three tries even!
Certainly ass and titties are a significant currency in the world of Crazy Horse (and the world in general, as we all know and as Catherine Hakim so thoughtfully ruminates about in her recent book "Erotic Capital"); so to are charm and poise, fleet footedness and good posture, and the ability to cooperate. Bathed in elaborate lighting schemes and scant but thoroughly considered costuming, these athletes are surely marvels of physical grace, but they are also sensitive and insecure young women, shrewd and observant as they are.
That Wiseman, once again working with his wonderful cinematographer John Davey is able to witness and articulate this, in long-ish takes of conversation amongst the circles of collaboration that allow these stage shows to come to life, amongst the performers in their off moments or after rehearsals with the company's choreographer and Stage Director Phillippe Decoufle, is of a piece with his genius. Wiseman has always had a profound way of lingering about his subjects just long enough to capture the critical, telling details; his work in Crazy Horse is no different.
Early in the film, Wiseman peers in on an administrative meeting, where Decoufle lobbies to postpone the show and close the venue for a period in order to start anew for fear of compromising the artistic sensibility of the institution with a half-baked performance. That his striking and iconoclastic collaborator, Artistic Director Ali Madhavi, is able to somehow assurdly suggest that Sarkozy’s government ought to make attendance Crazy Horse mandatory on the basis of being educated about a Gaulic national treasure, goes a long way toward clueing the audience in to how seriously this club takes itself.
With his ghostly pallor and Billy Corgan-esque pate, Madhavi clearly relishes the lavish nature and reputation of the club, however, it is the myriad stage technicians, makeup and wardrobe staff, board members and management, that is given the most ample consideration by Wiseman’s high-def camera when it isn’t trained on the mostly naked performers. The latter of which he neatly captures in both shadows and in bright, popping primary colors, with the pulsing femine flesh beautifully framed in Davey’s pitch perfect compositions. Frequently a glory for the sight and the senses, "Crazy Horse" is easy to take for granted and hard to forget. A bit like Wiseman himself, who even as an octegenarian, sees the world in as potent and meaningful a fashion as he ever has, and delivers a fantastic meditation on bodies in motion. [A-]